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The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan

The Sisterhood

I didn’t know what to expect when I started to read this novel.  The story seemed to center around 15th century nuns in a remote mountain convent in Spain.  Before long, the sisters turned out of be heretic feminists, which really made me cringe, but since this was a book club book, I kept going.

That’s when things started getting really interesting.  Flash forward to the 20th century.  A young girl washes up on a beach following an earthquake in Latin America, naked, wearing only an ancient medal on a chain, wrapped around her neck.  She is brought to a nearby convent, where the nuns care for her until she is adopted by an American couple.

Amazingly, the story brings the girl and the history of those nuns together, in a compelling narrative that reminded me of The DaVinci Code.

It was great fun, and although predictable at times, I enjoyed it very much.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
402 pages

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Prince Of Darkness by Sharon Kay Penman

Prince Of Darkness

I did it!  I finally finished the fourth (and so far, final) book in Penman’s Justin de Quincy series.  I don’t know how she does it.   Every book in the series has a creative, new mystery that features another facet of the story of Richard Lionheart and his rival/brother John.

In this book, Justin de Quincy is called to France to help the very person he dislikes, the enemy of his King – John.  Surprisingly, de Quincy realizes that he should lend his assistance here, because the plot he is called to unearth would harm the king as well as his brother.

I love how Penman presents a well-researched work of historical fiction, wrapped around a fictional mystery.  She portrays characters that are charming and a narrative that is engrossing.

Now I just have to find time to squeeze in Ransom, the sequel to Penman’s wonderful work about King Richard.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
336 pages

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Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

Julie And Julia

I decided to read “foodie” books this month, and eagerly delved into Julie Powell’s memoir about tackling the entire Mastering the Art of French Cooking (or MtAoFC as Powell calls it) within one year.

The thing that is great about this book is it 1) appeals to foodies who love to cook, and 2) has a special appeal to anal people like me, who actually do contemplate cooking their way through an entire cookbook.  I was truly impressed that she made it the entire way through.  I would definitely have skipped the sections on aspics and offal.

According to Julia Child’s publisher, Child did not think much of Powell.  She claimed that Powell wasn’t serious about cooking and also that the blog (and subsequent book) was a gimmick.  From Child’s point of view, she was probably right about the seriousness of cooking.  Child began learning to cook from cookbooks, but realized that in order to truly master French cooking, she needed proper training.  Hence, Child’s enrollment and subsequent diploma from Le Cordon Bleu.  As for the gimmick – I think Child was wrong.  Powell could not possibly have guessed that her project would attract any notice at all.  I can identify with Powell in that she set a goal for herself so that in it’s achievement, she could feel that she had done something worthwhile.  I agree.  So hat’s off to Julie Powell for that accomplishment.

I do have a couple of complaints about the book.  Julie Powell is not the sweet character portrayed by Amy Adams in the movie.  In fact, she appears immature, foul-mouthed and especially snarky towards Republicans in her memoir.  A good editor would have removed the hateful comments, especially because they served no purpose whatever.  As a conservative myself, I didn’t appreciate being attacked every few pages.

I did a Google search to find up what Powell has been up to since the release of the movie bearing the same name.  I found a blog asking people to stop attacking Powell (which made me smile a little, because she should have known that would happen when she dished out insults left and right in her book).  I also found out that she wrote another memoir a couple of years ago.  This time, the book covers the break-up of her marriage, due to the chronic bad habit that her girlfriends introduced her to in this book:  infidelity.  The book, as expected, was not a big seller.

Here’s my advice to Julie Powell:  first, conservative values can be a very good thing.  For instance, they could have prevented the break-up of your marriage.  Second:  you should take Julia Child’s advice and get serious about cooking.  Call your publisher and tell them you want to enroll in Le Cordon Bleu Paris.  Learn French (if you aren’t already proficient), and start a new memoir about your experiences mastering the art of French Cooking in a foreign country.  I bet you’ll have a book deal and I’ll be eager to read the memoir when it comes out – provided you stop with the conservative bashing.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2009
362 pages

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By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By Water

Mitchell James Kaplan paints a vivid picture of 15th century Spain in this novel about the lives of conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity to save themselves from religious intolerance) in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition.

The book was a bit slow to start for me, but once it did, I was hooked.  The characters were compelling and the narrative included intrigue.  There aren’t many works of historical fiction that tackle the topic of Spanish Jews or the Muslims of Granada, so I enjoyed reading about that bit of history.  Also fascinating was the “new inquisition” and how the then-current pope disapproved.

While the treatment of the conversos is heartbreaking, Kaplan doesn’t fail to give his readers of sense of hope.

Two other books that deal with the exodus of Jews during the Inquisition are People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, and The Coffee Trader by David Liss.  Both are excellent and highly recommended.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2010
284 pages

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The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

The Shell Seekers

This is one of those “oldie but goodie” types of books that I never got around to reading when it was first published 27 years ago.  I’m glad I finally got the chance to read it in September.

Penelope Keeling is the aging main character, who spends part of the novel reflecting back on her life during World War II in Cornwall.  She marries Ambrose Keeling, whom she doesn’t love, and when Ambrose is sent off to war, begins an affair with Richard, a British naval officer.

At the outset of the novel, Penelope struggles with her three adult children – two of which only seem interested in her for her assets – mainly paintings by her father that have suddenly become popular at auction.

I’m always a sucker for a storyline about art, and the conflict of monetary versus sentimental value.  For me, this made the novel well worth reading.  I also enjoy historical fiction, and while Pilcher didn’t go into as much detail as I would have liked, I did appreciate Penelope’s reminiscences of World War II.  I also enjoyed the descriptions of the Cornwall countryside, the ocean and Penelope’s cottage and gardens.

I find it interesting that the values of the 1980’s came through loud and clear in this book.  No hang-ups about sex or extra-marital affairs.  It’s very typical of novels written at that time, but seem somewhat shocking to read about those attitudes today.  While the author does try to explain that Penelope and her parents lived a bohemian lifestyle, I still doubt that family values would have taken a backseat during the 1940’s.  Still, it was a fun read, and I needed some lightness after immersing myself in classics.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1987
582 pages

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The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

The Shoemaker's Wife

What a marvelous storyteller Adriana Trigiani is!  Just when I needed a good, pull-me-in kind of book, I sat down to read The Shoemaker’s Wife and fell in love with the characters of Enza and Ciro.

The novel begins when the two are teenagers in Italy following the first World War.  Enza is the 15 year old daughter of a large family who has just buried a younger daughter.  Ciro is a slightly older boy, growing up in a convent following the death of his father.  They connect, kiss, and seem destined to be together.  Then Ciro gets sent to America and Enza is bewildered at his sudden departure without even a word to her.

It’s a story of the immigrant experience, of hard work and about the meaning of true love.  Trigiani does a wonderful job researching the lives of Italian immigrants, and her characters are well-developed and charming.  Loved this book!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
496 pages

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